Yoga Workshop: Mudras and Bandhas
Ah! A beautiful Spring day in Melbourne 😀 What a lovely time to come together to workshop Mudras and Bandhas.
This workshop is an inward turning topic. Among other things, that means it was almost all talk, with very little physical practice.
Mudras and bandhas are employed to make our physical practice easier, but in the process they also move it to a deeper (or higher?) level.
To begin to get a grasp of these more esoteric aspects of yoga practice, we begin with a cursory overview of the five koshas – the layers of physical being. The koshas are typically presented as the layers of an onion in more or less concentric circles surrounding the Atman, or True Self. The standard translation of kosha is “sheath” – so the sheaths surrounding the Self.
I chose this image (from www.halfasana.com) because the layers are neither circular nor concentric. They are still too regular for a clear understanding. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first let’s translate the Sanskrit names.
Annamaya Kosha is the outer most, and thus most tangible layer. It represents what we most commonly think of as our physical body. It is referred to as the “coarse body”, in distinction from the increasingly subtle aspects of the body in the other koshas.
Pranamaya Kosha is the next layer, the energetic body. In our asana practice it is frequently invoked as the breath.
Manomaya Kosha is the mental body or mind layer. The mental body is engaged by drishtis, for example – the focal points used in various asanas. Manomaya Kosha is engaged in the process of fostering single-point focus.
Vijnyanamaya Kosha is the wisdom layer and Anandamaya Kosha is bliss body. Vijnanamaya Kosha is the seat of the Jnanendriyas (entrance doors), which we explored in our Embodied Learning workshop in May. “It is the vehicle of higher thought, vijnana — understanding, knowing, direct cognition, wisdom, intuition and creativity” (http://veda.wikidot.com/vijnanamaya-kosha).
At the center of this schema is Atman, which is variously interpreted as True Self, Spirit or Soul. It’s also understood as the Universal Self. It is from this perspective that non-dualistic yoga philosophy perceives the Self and the Universe as One.
The immediate focus of yoga (and this workshop) is the integration or harmonization of the koshas. This integration is the “union” which is yoga.
In this sense, our practice aims to move the koshas towards something like the neat symmetrical sheaths depicted above, or even to the more standard view of concentric circles. But what most of us are faced with in our everyday lives something more like this:
The “dart board” representation of the koshas is misleading, because we are not rounded. Becoming rounded is our aim, a significant step forward from where we find ourselves. The evenly spaced sheaths of my first image above is also much too smooth and balanced. Our koshas are rough and uneven. There are different distances between different parts of our subtle and coarser bodies.
Several of the people participating in this workshop have recently returned from the Svastha-yoga and Jungle Yoga training in Koh Phangan, where they had discussed the issue of adjusting people in their asana poses without imposing a fixed understanding of each pose; i.e., while recognizing that we’re all different in our physiology, flexibility, strength etc. Nina says to look for the dissonance and harmony of the koshas.
Hear ragged breathing; this is a very clear indicator of non-alignment. See shaking or trembling; they’re over-reaching or over-stressing in a pose. Watch for when the physical and energetic bodies are being over-ridden by the mind – when the student is trying to make the body do what s/he thinks it’s supposed to do, rather than feeling into how the physical body and breath are comfortable in the pose.
A lot of the yoga practised today seeks to connect mind and body while neglecting the other layers. Some practitioners are also aware of the importance of the breath. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of practice aimed at fully integrating the deeper layers of being.
Before we began to explore how working with mudras and bandhas can help to move our practice to a deeper level, we went around the circle and introduced ourselves. Each participant was asked to briefly explain what they understood about mudras and bandhas, and what they were looking for in this workshop.
- “When I first learned to work with mudras and bandhas during my tantric-hatha teacher training, it changed everything. It changed my life.”
- “Lately my practice has been pretty physical, and mostly on the surface. I want to get back to a deeper practice.”
- “Bandhas are rather subtle; I’m not sure what I should be experiencing.”
- “I experience bandhas as ‘another thing to do’ in a pose. They’re layered on top of the physical adjustments, not integrated into it.”
- Mudras: “I’m not sure what they’re for, except that bliss state.”
- “Can you make your own mudra?”
- “I mostly only know about these things through reading about them. I don’t really know when or how to use them.”
- “I have some training and experience in using bandhas to shift the energy but need to practice. I’m not sure about mudras except as something decorative to do with the hands.”
- Mudras: “I really like them, and find myself using some by default, but I don’t know why.”
- “What the hell is this prana stuff? I think I get it when the asana is going easy – but I’m not sure that I’m in control.”
- “I don’t see them in the Yoga Sutras. Where do they come from?”
- “When I’m teaching I invoke the bandhas, but I’m not sure how well they’re integrated into my practice. I love the mudras for their subtle energies and use them too, but I want to go deeper.”
A Mudra is a symbolic or ritual gesture. Most are made with the hands, but the eyes and tongue are also commonly employed. In fact, asanas are also mudras, although the symbolism is not always intended by the practitioner.
A mudra may contribute to directing an energetic flow, either symbolically or through the physicality of the gesture, or both. In this sense they are closely associated with bandhas, yet the two things are quite distinct.
Bandhas – often translated as “locks” – are much more directly involved in harnessing, boosting and directing energetic flow, although their engagement is not always conscious or intentional. We’re going to explore mudras first, and then turn our attention to bandhas.
Mudras are not always intentionally chosen, or knowingly engaged. Often the yoga practitioner is simply engaging the hands in a pose, rather than having them hang limp or flop about. It’s not uncommon, though, for people who are beginning a meditation practice to experiment with various hand gestures while trying to find a comfortable pose.
Nina says it’s important that we do not consciously override an intuited shape. Maybe the others in the room, including the teacher, have different ways of doing it, but sitting in meditation is very much a personal experience. Palm up or palm down, one or two fingers touching thumb or tucked into the palm may have some ancient symbolism, but it doesn’t have to mean that for you. If it helps you to sit still and focus, don’t interfere with that!
The flip side of that is that often we are taught to make specific mudras when doing particular asanas – or when we are being guided through a meditation. If this is how our practice begins, it is too easy to fall into habits. Habits are not great. They tend to become obstructions to integrating the koshas.
Forming mudras with the tongue can be a very powerful practice, most obviously as a focal point, but also much more subtly. Many of us have used the tongue in the pranayama practice of cooling breath, where we roll the tongue as a straw through which we suck air. Sometimes we’re instructed to roll the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth – especially when doing spinal extensions (see Spinal Extensions for why I don’t call them “back bends”).
There are stories of yogis in India cutting the web of the tongue (lingual frenectomy) which connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth. This gives them greater flexibility, so they can roll the tongue down the throat or up into the sinus cavity to be able to capture the amrta (divine nectar) flowing down from the pituitary gland.
Turning the eyes up towards the “third eye” is also a mudra which is useful as a tool for pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses. This mudra is commonly instructed as part of lion’s breath, where additionally the tongue is stuck down towards the chin. When combined with rolling tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth it is a great aid for spinal extensions.
This evoked a reaction: focusing the eyes to withdraw the senses seems rather contradictory. But turning the focus of the eyes towards the inner, or third eye while not a withdrawal from the senses is a withdrawal of the senses from the outside world. In a similar way, then, touching the fingers together in a mudra, like focusing the eyes on a candle flame or a flower petal, is “turning within” – or pratyahara. These are all techniques employed to focus the mind on a single point, working towards concentration as a precursor to meditation.
It is worthwhile learning a variety of these techniques, and experimenting with them in different practices, for a number of reasons. One reason is to avoid falling into habitual ways of doing things – the antithesis of a conscious or mindful yoga practice.
Another is that our practice changes. As one participant noted in the introduction, sometimes our yoga is “just physical”, sometimes it’s more contemplative, or more energetic. Consciously choosing a different focus and working with it for a period of time is a way of consciously engaging with, if not controlling, the ways that the practice changes. Nina suggested that for one week you determine to do every practice with the tip of your tongue firmly planted on the roof of your mouth. With this as the over-riding priority, everything else will change. Another week determine that you will hold a constant breath-count for your practice. Or spend a week focusing on engaging padabandha (foot lock – I’ll come back to that later).
The relationship between the mudras, the bandhas and the asanas can be seen as a chicken and egg circle. It doesn’t matter which you start with, the others will follow. But moving your focus from one to another consciously and with intention is a strong way to deepen the integration, and to overcome some of those concerns expressed in our introductions, about not being sure what you’re experiencing.
Ujjayi is also a gesture, made with the throat, and with sound. When an entire practice is focused on sustaining an even and steady ujjayi breath, the physical postures become less effort.
At this point it is important to remember that we are not talking about yoga as a physical fitness regime; it’s not about stressing the body to build leaner or stronger muscles. This is a practice for harnessing energy, for energising the body and uplifting the spirit. It is a practice for moving the koshas into more harmonious relationships with one another. And the first step in this process is to move the practice from a hardcore asana regime to an inner playground.
It’s worth repeating, then, that mudras are used to sharpen our focus and intention as we practice.
When we look at maps like the ones above, we see that there are many ways of interpreting various gestures (mudras). One of the simplest is see the five digits as representing the self in the world. If the thumb represents the universe, and the forefinger the individual (then family, community, society in order), then the simplest mudra of connecting the tip of the forefinger to the tip of the thumb (the chin, or jnana mudra) symbolically represents connecting the individual to the universe, merging the individual with the universal.
But if we follow the legend on the image above, the same gesture is adding air to the fire! Or is it connecting self-worth to self-assertion?
And when you find that you unintentionally formed the mudra while doing a dancing Shiva asana, what is your subconscious telling you?
It’s not getting too post-modernist to say “it depends”, or to invoke Freud’s self-justificatory reminder that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. Maybe it simply means that you had a cramp in your forearm, or you were doing something pretty with your hands, or that every time an instructor has moved you into that pose they’ve added the instruction “and touch the tip of your forefinger to the tip of your thumb”. Sometimes it’s just mechanical; sometimes it’s just habit.
They are symbolic gestures when used ritually and intentionally to symbolize something. But beware of trying to read meanings into otherwise meaningless gestures after-the-fact. Especially when it was used to aid a physical posture.
For example, in extended side angle pose (utthita parsvakonasana), it is not uncommon to begin with the elbow resting on the bent knee. In this position, making a mudra with the forefinger and thumb engages the arm and shoulder, lifting the spine into a better alignment, and changing the entire energetic alignment. In this case, it’s a physical tool, not a symbolic gesture, even though it has an important energetic effect.
This energetic effect, too, is a step towards deeper integration. We are trying to move beyond that feeling of “layering on” yet another adjustment, another focus, another technique. Like the union of individual and universal in the chin mudra, in utthita parsvakonasana we aim for integration of the entirety of the physical body as well as the pranic and mental bodies.
Yet, although that’s ultimately the aim, it’s not realistic to expect it. In fact it’s counterproductive to expect it, and even worse to demand it of ourselves (see our discussion on Intentions). Like many things in yoga, this is something that we must aim for without striving for – a desire that we must abandon in order to fulfil.
Along the way, we also have days when things just are not going to go our way. Nina calls these “days when you don’t use your favourite mug”. On these days, trying to add “just one more thing”, yet another layer, to our asana is going to break us. On these days, as on days when we are carrying an injury, you might choose to devote your entire practice to mudras or pranayama. This is one way you can get your practice in without risking an injury (or further injury).
Think of this as a containment, a non-ego driven working within today’s limitations. Tomorrow, when you’ve recovered from your injury, or recovered your grip (so you won’t drop your mug), you can return to working on integrating the mudra or prana into a more physical asana.
Remember that the sheaths or layers, although represented like an onion, cannot be cut away or peeled back. Instead, we must continuously work to smooth out their rough spots, settle their dissonance, remove the barriers between them,
Everything we do in yoga – whether asanas, mudras, pranayama, or sitting in meditation – aims to broaden our comfort zone, grow our capacities, realize our potentials.
Like driving a car, although you might enjoy doing it, that is not why you do it. You do it to get somewhere else. You are present, here-now. You are doing what you do, and doing it well. But you’re not doing it for its own sake. You’re going somewhere. So too with mudras and asanas – we don’t do them for their own sake, even if we enjoy them. They’re vehicles to get us to a place of greater integration, where we experience the koshas and the atman as one unified and integrated whole. This isn’t the only way to get there, but it’s the way that we’ve chosen.
Bandhas are harder to comprehend, because they’re less tangible. They do not exist in the physical realm, and are experienced at a subtler level of being than we are accustomed to.
At the same time, you can only teach someone how to get to that experience by pointing them to things they are familiar with, things that are (relatively) more tangible. And – both fortunately and unfortunately – there are physical attributes that roughly correspond to the bandhas’ locations, and physical actions that can facilitate bandha activation. This is fortunate because it is incredibly helpful in teaching bandha engagement; yet it is unfortunate because many students then mistake the physical experience for the subtler bandha engagement and cease opening themselves to the subtler experience.
Here we immediately re-encounter that paradox of seeking something by letting go of the quest. The less you desire the experience of the bandha, the more it will come to you. But only if you are working it, and working towards it.
So what are they? The term bandha is typically translated as “lock”. They are spoken of as energetic locks. But Nina doesn’t like that term, or that way of conceptualising it. It is rare that we would want to stop the flow entirely – hence the binary implications of lock that is either on or off is problematic. Do you want to lock your energy? Is it even possible? Is it yoga?
The Bandhas are energetic concepts, which she prefers to think of as more like valves – something that can be opened and closed; something that can be held somewhere in between, allowing energy flow, while enabling control of the energy flow. This way of thinking also makes it easier to hold the idea that the flow can go both ways; they can be engaged and still allow movement. [Franziska offered a very helpful understanding of bandhas as ‘locks’ – she uses the term of lock in the sense of the ship locks you find eg in the Panama Canal (German ‘Schleuse’, a much more apt view of it!]
As mentioned, we use physical mechanisms to facilitate an experience, to facilitate an expression of this energetic flow. Hence, when learning to engage mula bandha (located at the base of the spine), one of my first yoga teachers repeatedly instructed “close your anus”. Whilst that’s not mula bandha, it’s very close, both physically and conceptually.
This is a practice in which “fake it ‘til you make it” is sound advice. If you are physically engaging the pelvic floor to close the anus, you are also engaging mula bandha. Now all that’s left to do is develop the sensitivity to experience it at the more subtle energetic level. And this can only be done through the dynamic interplay of working hard and letting go – simultaneously.
At this point someone added “I’ve always thought of it as a way of the harnessing energy. I couldn’t have gotten there on my own. I needed someone to teach me how to harness it. But when I harness it I find the practice much more energising, less exhausting.”
Nina responded that we often see a limpness in modern practice, because there’s no base or platform for building the bandhas. Many students are over-extending, throwing their heads back, or their chest wide-open, with no containment, no facility for engaging jalandhara bandha (in the throat) or uddiyana bandha (solar plexus; or navel centre – some dispute about this). But with proper instruction, you start to go into poses in ways in which they can engage – and then they will, which is very containing, uplifting and energising.
This means that, yes, you can come to the bandhas without intellectualising them – without conceptualising them. You can learn to work with the energy, harnessing and exchanging the energy, without thinking about it or conceptualising it as such.
To demonstrate the pattern mentioned above, of throwing the chest open and the head back, Nina mentioned those yogis with a dance background, for whom the fully open diva pose is second nature. As mentioned, for most of us, pulling back a little, finding some containment, creates an opportunity to engage jalandhara bandha, and perhaps hri bandha (near the armpit, or serratus anterior). Such an engagement is energising, empowering, uplifting.
We do not need to conceptualise the bandhas to achieve this. But when we take this idea and apply it to other aspects of our life, then perhaps a bit of conceptualisation is helpful. We spoke here about those people who self-identify as “givers” or “carers” – those who are always wide-open, pouring out their energy to whomever needs it. Uhmmm, except, of course, they must also receive energy from somewhere, sometime, or they simply exhaust themselves; and then they’re of no use to themselves or anyone else.
Conceptualising the need for containment in order to find energy and empowerment here can be quite useful. Recognising that one cannot only give, but must also receive can be an important breakthrough; not only in containing and sustaining energy, but for the sake of relationships too – for those people who perceive themselves as always wide-open and giving tend to resort to manipulation and wheedling in order to take the energy that they need in order to continue to give.
As we were kicking around these ideas someone used the term “character flaws” to try to get to the heart of the matter of the giver who is unaware of taking, the giver who exhausts themselves by being unable to consciously and intentionally receive. But someone else objected to the use of the term “flaws” and we worked around to “character traits” – not all of which traits are “owned” or “acknowledged” by the character.
This touches on a central tension in yoga: it is always a personal journey; a journey of self-discovery; learning where you are at, what you are capable of, what you need to keep going. Yet it is always also a shared journey, learning in dialogue and in relationship with others.
And through dialogue we seek to learn the importance of receiving in order to have the energy to give; we seek a truer understanding of our individual character traits – both those that we value positively and those which we have been denying because for some reason they are negatively valued in our framework. In part, then, this is a journey of emancipation – emancipating ourselves from culturally inscribed values, among other things. We grew up with the maxim “It is better to give than to receive”. No doubt this has its place in our education; learning to be generous, to share, and not be totally self-centred. But it is only appropriate in a binary framework – if our choices are limited to either giving or receiving, then it is better to give. But those are not our only choices, and we cannot sustain giving without receiving.
I’ve already mentioned the three main bandhas: mula bandha is the base or root, jalandhara bandha is the top, in the throat, and uddiyana bandha is at the centre of the torso. Closing (or locking) mula bandha and jalandhara bandhas contains the energy within the torso, keeping it from leaking out any of the major orifices of the physical body. These are very useful for addressing, or dealing with gravity. They help the practitioner to work with, rather than be subjected to, gravity.
Uddiyana bandha simply adds a (very significant) dimension to this. It is translated literally as “upward flying lock” and is crucial to floating up into inversions, floating through jump-throughs, or coming from adho muka svanasana (downward dog) to a standing position. It is engaged by an upward lifting of the solar plexus / diaphragm, “slurping” the energy up into the body, and holding it there. It has the effect of offering an upward lift of the body.
It is worth repeating here that we are speaking of energetic phenomena that can be engaged through physical practices. No intention is required. But being aware of their effect offers degrees of possibility, giving you greater choices and greater control in your practice.
For example, pascimotanasana, when done solely physically, is simply a forward bend with a spinal extension. But with the three bandhas engaged, the entire pose transforms into an energetic mudra – extending, uplifting, empowering. Something similar happens in plank or downward dog. The poses don’t change – but you can see the energetic body expressed in the physical body when the bandhas are engaged.
We also discussed pada bandha, the foot-lock, and hasta bandha, the hand lock. I’m not going to elaborate on them here, as this has become a very long blog. Suffice to say that everything changes in standing poses, or inversions, when these bandhas are engaged – lifting and spreading, stabilising and empowering.
Let me finish by emphasizing that this entire discussion is giving names and locations to ephemeral and elusive things. We are speaking of parts of an integrated whole as if they can be separated out and taken apart. We do this because it helps our little brains to comprehend the various aspects and complexities of this amazing complexity – but we’ll never reach anything approximating a genuine understanding until we put it all back together again.
With the bandhas integrated into our asanas, they transform from something that we are doing into something that reveal themselves to us.
Next workshop 17 October @ 1.15pm
Adho Mukha & Transitions (or: moving in and out of the dogs)